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Interview With Chris Robert

INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS ROBERT

(reprinted from Business Week)

 

Do you have a cranky boss? Some bosses act as though they're allergic to humor, bristling when employees joke around in the office and fretting over the line between humor and harassment. But Chris Robert, assistant professor of management at the University of Missouri-Columbia's Robert J. Trulaske Sr. College of Business, says joking around on the job can actually have a positive effect on productivity and employee retention. Robert, whose findings have been published as a chapter in a recent edition of the journal Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, spoke about his findings to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

 

Why did you decide to do an academic study on workplace humor?

 

I've always appreciated how humor is an important part of the day-to-day work life, and I've always been interested and intrigued by how humor works. I've also done research on the subject of cross-cultural management styles and noticed how some humor works well in our culture, but not in other places.

 

Have you found that humor is definitely culturally specific?

 

Sure, somewhat. But on the other hand you typically hear things like, "Don't use humor in international business settings, it'll fall flat or you'll offend someone." But my experience is that that's not the worst thing in the world. And the upside is really positive: Almost nothing makes you more comfortable than sharing a laugh about something universal, like kids. So sometimes humor works exceedingly well across cultures to make people feel better about each other and about doing business together.

 

I approached the topic of humor initially from the cross-cultural angle, but then I decided to survey the literature and found that there wasn't much out there in terms of empirical work on humor. There are lots of armchair theorizers, but not many good studies. So a business doctoral student, Wan Yan, and I looked at the fields of anthropology, communications, and sociology to see what might inform what we'd expect to see in business organizations.

 

And what did you find?

 

We found pretty good theory and evidence suggesting that humor at the individual level is important. The use of humor, and the ability to produce and make humor, is associated with intelligence and creativity, two things highly valued in workplaces. More important, the link between humor and positive emotions seems strong, which is intuitive, and there's also a strong correlation between positive emotions and workplace performance.

 

So are you saying that a funny employee can help promote a happy, productive workplace?

 

No one has really studied humor as an important part of employee performance directly, but we do know that positive affect in the workplace increases individual performance. And humor is one of the things associated with a positive affect, which increases not only productivity, but also the ability to communicate well with the boss, co-workers, and customers. It also enhances the degree to which you feel bonded, cohesive, and part of the group in the workplace.

 

That's where employee retention comes into it. If you have positive emotions about your job, you're less likely to quit. And maybe part of that is because of the fun you're having in the break room. You might get a better job offer, but it will take more to draw you away when you like where you work and you like the people you work with.

 

It seems as if we often get negative reactions to humor from those armchair theorizers or from the legal perspective. Why do you think that is?

 

Humor enables people to make comments that they might not otherwise make. If you can wrap something up in humor and say, "Oh, I'm just kidding around," you might be able to say something offensive that you wouldn't say without the humor. So I think often people blame humor in general when someone's making an offensive comment within humor. I think of humor as the medium, not the message. If someone makes a sexually charged comment, but they use humor to do it, should we blame humor or should we blame the person's intentions? We don't want to shoot the messenger.

 

In the same sense, doesn't humor also give employees the freedom to criticize or complain about their jobs?

 

Sure. If the business owner or manager is someone who doesn't respond well to direct challenges from employees, they might find a way to criticize indirectly with humor. In that case, I'd advise the business owner to take the message seriously. The person making the joke might be challenging you, which could be a problem, or you might be getting a subtle communication from one employee that other employees also feel. If an employee makes a joke about a supervisor, other people probably agree with that joke. Humor producers know that other people are listening to their joke and they're more likely to make it if they think the others will appreciate it.

 

In that sense, humor can be used effectively by the business owner to understand how employees are thinking. It could create an opportunity for you to address a complaint or criticism that you wouldn't hear about otherwise.

 

How did your study find that humor relates to workplace creativity?

 

The primary theory about humor, which is well accepted, is that it stems from incongruity. In other words, we find jokes or comments funny because they are linking two things together—perhaps through a punch line—that you wouldn't normally link together, or that shouldn't go together. Essentially, that's what creativity is, too: Putting things together in a unique way, like using the Internet for something people wouldn't have thought of before.

 

It's likely that some of the same neural processes enable both humor and creativity, so those two things kind of go hand in hand. A number of studies show that a funny person is also likely to be a very creative person.

 

How do your findings translate to the hiring decisions that small business owners have to make?

 

That's an interesting issue, and in fact we're working on a paper about that right now. Should you select the funny guy for a job? I don't necessarily think you want to select the class clown, someone who's constantly joking and has to be the center of attention all the time. That could be too much for a workplace, it could get distracting for the other employees, and any boss would probably have valid worries about that kind of person. But if you can get some more subtle indicators in an interview that someone has a good sense of humor—say, they appreciate humor or they find things funny—that might be someone you want to have around. The other thing is that humor is viral. When someone's laughing, it's kind of contagious and it can spread a positive general benefit to the workplace.

Making An Impression In Times of Crisis

At my seminars, I talk about one of the ways to develop a humorous perspective, which is to ask yourself, if you’re in a crisis or embarrassing situation, how would someone else react if they were in your shoes (a favorite comedian, famous person, etc.).And who would be better to ask that question to than the master impressionist himself, Rich Little.

 

A few years ago I interviewed him for a feature article in my newsletter, and he recalled a time when he used his talent to avoid a potentially dangerous encounter: “Once I was confronted by a bunch of thugs who I thought were going to beat me up. It was in south Florida and I was pretty scared, but within 15 minutes I had them laughing. I was doing my whole act and they were applauding! So I turned that around I don’t remember exactly how. I think I went into Louie Armstrong. But it was scary. They didn’t know who I was, but when I started doing the impressions they lost their incentive to beat me up.”

 

I asked him what other characters he assumes in those dicey situations. He replied, “Once in a while if I get angry I go into Kirk Douglas; if I do something silly I might go into Jack Benny, just out of embarrassment more than anything. One time I was in a supermarket and there was a pyramid-stacked display with cans of peas. I just pulled one of the cans out of the bottom without thinking, and about 200 cans of peas fell down. There was a tremendous noise and the whole store ran over. I was standing there as Jack Benny, holding this can of peas, and I said to the crowd, `Well, the ones on the bottom were on sale.’”

 

He continued: “I’ve done a lot of pranks on the phone using voices, like ordering room service as characters. I can figure out the popularity of (famous people) by how fast I could get it delivered. I once ordered a cheeseburger as Richard Nixon and it never came. But Cary Grant could get it there in about three minutes.” Even if we don’t have the comedic talent of a Rich Little, jumping into a character can help us put a better perspective on trying circumstances.

Bending Rules for Better Results

"Most managers," said futurist Alvin Toffler, "were trained to be the thing they most despise...bureaucrats." Bureaucratic workplace rules, policies and red tape are a major frustration, both for the manager who has to enforce them, and for the employees who have to endure them. Employees often cite baffling workplace rules as an impediment to getting their work done efficiently. Some workplace rules are essential to deal with important considerations such as safety. But arbitrary edicts for every aspect of office life act as handcuffs, limiting people's ability to achieve the best results.

 

In the book Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules For Smart Results, authors Bill Jensen and Josh Klein show how today's top performers are taking matters into their own hands to circumvent all sorts of rules just to get their work done. These are dubbed benevolent hackers who find ways to get around stupid rules to get smarter results. The authors cite an example of employees frustrated because their boss insists that all presentations be delivered in PowerPoint. But collaborating with others on PowerPoint slides took forever to upload (and download) files on the company's Microsoft SharePoint servers.

 

Breaking the rules by surreptitiously using Google Documents for the collaborative work, and saving to PowerPoint at the last minute, saved hours of frustration and helped these employees accomplish more. Another example cited is of an employee who was tired of spending six to eight hours a month doing his expense reports according to his employer's cumbersome forms. He now uses Mint.com to create a one-pager of his expenses and even uses Salesreceiptstore.com to order duplicate sets of receipts to match his expenses so he doesn't have to carry pockets full of receipts.

 

What these two examples teach business executives is that there's an urgent need to keep up with the rapidly changing work environment, not only in terms of how people work today, but also what tools are available out there. The authors state that "the tools we have outside of work are leapfrogging past what we use on the job." Preventing employees from using these tools makes their life needlessly more difficult. And many will find a way to work around firewalls and use them anyway because these tools allow them to work more efficiently.

 

Reprinted portion of article by Bruna Martinuzzi, founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Humor Risk Management

Employing humor in the workplace has its risks and rewards. If you are going to poke fun at someone, let it be you, or a person with whom you have a solid relationship and you know they will take it in good humor. This is especially true if the humor has a sarcastic twinge to it. Otherwise, it would be wise to avoid sarcasm or any humor that is at the expense of someone else.

 

Poking fun at yourself is a safe form of humor, unless you bludgeon yourself with it, which makes others uncomfortable. If you’re doing business in Japan, it would be prudent to avoid self-deprecating humor since it’s not embraced in their culture. On the other hand, they love puns and cartoons. Neutral subjects such as the weather are usually OK to make a joke about in any culture. Common gripes that a group of workers share collectively are a safe haven for humor. But no matter what, there is always an element of risk involved because you cannot be 100% certain how people will take it.

 

Humor can fall flat and even boomerang, depending on the mood, the timing and the environment. Keep those factors in mind and use both intuition and common sense. If you are uncertain at all, you can preface your quip or joke by saying, “I just thought of something that I think is humorous. Can I share it with you?” Even if it flops, at least you had their permission to share it.

Violators Will Be Trespassed

Not only can change be unsettling, but downright chaotic. At Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, CA, a shortage of parking spaces had developed. After months of endless meetings to tackle the problem, administration revealed plans for a new parking structure. However, precious parking spaces had temporarily disappeared while construction took place, and the parking lots were knotted every morning. The hospital’s personnel manager showed how to defuse some of the frustration in the following memo:

 

TO: Employees

FROM: Management

Re: Employee Parking Rules

 

Employees may participate in a demolition derby that starts in employee lots each morning promptly at 9:00 a.m. after all the spaces are filled. Employees who do not participate will automatically be declared losers.

Employees who park illegally one time will be warned, after two times, will be stripped and flogged in front of other violators, and after three times will be forced to eat all their meals in the company cafeteria.

Employees whose cars stick out in traffic lanes will have their rear ends painted red. If they continue to park this way, we will do the same thing to their cars.

 

A human resource director I knew used an amusing tactical device to make sure her memos were noticed. Whenever she sent a memo to other departments, she would attach it to a cartoon, toy, or prop. “People will not only read the memos but remember them as well,” she asserted.       

 

One of the most popular exercises in my seminar is when I give the group a typically heavy-handed memo from a hypothetical company, and have them rewrite it in a humorous fashion. I break off the group into teams of six or seven people to collectively brainstorm funny, creative, and outrageous reconfigurations of the memo.

 

After a time frame of 15-20 minutes to recreate the memo, each group appoints a spokesperson to read the revised copy. I’m always impressed with how clever and funny many of them are, as are the participants who created them. In Hawaii, one team rewrote the whole memo in Hawaiian Pidgin English, while another reworked theirs in “Ebonics”. It’s tremendously valuable for them to experience working, creating, and laughing together as a team.


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